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During the 10th edition of the Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead came to show their third movie, The Endless, an intriguing movie about time-travel and a sect. I had the amazing opportunity to meet them and to talk about the creation of their film. And for sure, it was very fascinating.
De L’Autre Côté de l’Image : Well I am very curious about your motivations when you are making films: is it something that you have ever wanted to do? Do you have any memory of a film that motivated you to make movies, or is this just like a coincidence?
Aaron Morrhead : I started making movies when I was 12, I think with stop-motions animated short-films, like Star Wars action figures. I liked watching movies like anybody likes watching movies. But it wasn’t watching movies that inspired me to make them, I actually enjoy the making of them, the way that people enjoy, you know, making chairs and doing crossword puzzle, that was actually a hobby, rather than looking at a big Hollywood movie and thinking like, “Ok I wanna do that”.
Justin Benson : My relation with movies as a child has been a very conventional thing like the only thing that was maybe a little bit exceptional is that my parents took me to a lot of movies, like literally once a week. Their date night was taking me to a movie for most of my whole childhood. I’ve never seen it as something I could do and in fact I can remember going to those movies with my parents and having discussions about what would be a good career for me as we’re walking into the movie and being like “well you know if you become a doctor there would be the advantages of that …” (chuckles) And then when I was about 18 years old, a girl that I was dating at the time – I was a senior in high school – showed me Pulp fiction and Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Chasing Amy and I remember like these are like 3 movies that I thought that there was some kind of magic in them. It was the magic of language about how we people speak, but I understood, I had some ideas and was like “I think I could make people talk like that” and then that was it. Whereas when I saw Jurassic Park when I was a little kid I never thought “I can make that dinosaur” (chuckles) Now it comes later where I understand more the technical side of film making.
DLACDI : You are defining yourself as “DIY filmmakers”. Can you talk a bit more about what have you done really in The Endless? Why have you decided to be DIY filmmakers and wanted to make everything on your own?
A.M On The Endless, we were – and by the way sometimes other people own these titles – we were producers, directors, actors, editors, cinematographers, writers, visual effects artists. The reason we did it on The Endless is because we wanted to make a movie that nobody could stop us from making. Nothing would have been able to stop us, that was one reason why we wore so many hats on it. But we’ve now realized, though, I think when we started it was because we had to, because we were indie filmmakers and that’s what you have to do. You have to roll up your sleeves and stop pretending you’re just a director, you’re doing everything now. Deal with it. Now, it’s more like “we’re gonna do as much as anyone would let us do” . Someone doesn’t deliver us their finished product. So, it started out as DIY filmmakers because we had to, but with kind of this vague hope that one day we wouldn’t have to, and now it’s transitioned into DIY filmmakers because we want to and we really hope no one takes it away from us.
J.B : Fundamentally when we just started out , if the ambition had been to write a script and to sell that script in Hollywood or to go to parties and try to meet the right person who may let us direct the movie someday. I think that that way forward leaves a lot more uncertainty than just figuring out a way to do it yourself and often time if you’re a first time filmmaker and you’re not gonna do all that stuff yourself, and you’re looking for a bigger budget, and things like that, then it isn’t gonna end up being your vision. It’s probably not a movie you would have made, you’d probably end up making a zombie movie even though you never cared about zombie movies, because there is commercial potential behind them.
A.M : I hope that when we’ll get really big budgets, it looks like we’ve now made a weird little cottage industry for ourselves where people prefer that we do it all ourselves. Which is something we did not expect.Wwe thought they would try to take it away and be like: let’s give it to the experts. And instead now they see us as the experts. So we kinda get to do everything, which feels great. It’s exhausting, but that’s why there are two of us.
DLACDI : How would you define the Endless as a genre ? Is it something that matters to you, to put films and your film especially into categories ?
J.B : When we are making a film, to the point we are writing the script, we litteraly never discuss the genre specifically. In a way we don’t really need to . Because, if there is a movie with any element of time travel, or the film has any element from the supernatural, it will be marketed as horror sci-fi. Ultimately, what the movie is defined as a genre, this is the part of the markting department. A genre is a brand that people identify with. And people identify with the genre of horror, if funs, it creates a community behind it, but there is no importance behind it.
A.M : I think people want to hear what fit the most to this description to know what categorie,it fits in it will never fit clearly into one category. But to me I think the audience will find the movie way bigger than that.
J.B There are not really a lot of filmmakers that succeed in doing one particular genre, like a horror movie. Usually this turns out to be really poorly. Some people do it very well, like James Wan as he understands the craftmanship of a horror film. And people love those films, and there are very impressive.
A.M : I think someone said that the worst crime a filmmaker can make is being boring. When someone tries to put horror elements their movie, in the intent of being scarier, no matter what, it becomes more expected. So in the attempt of being scarier, you’re being less scarier, because you just know what’s going to happen. And the only movie I can’t tell you why it keeps working on me, is It. It has a kind of million horror elements in it that are all pretty conventionnal to be honest. But it has this massive backlash where people are all saying it is not scary at all.
J.B : We are living in a time where there are a lot of opinions expressed in social medias, and there are some good points with it. But I have seen this backlash with The Witch for example. People were saying that The Witch is not even scary, but if that’s not scary, what is scary to you ?! And I think that someone watched it and could not deal with the pace of the movie, in the edits, in the visceral things that happen up front. I think The Witch is an example of, no matter what you makes, it’s never scary.
A.M But you know what, no one will never tell you that what makes a horror film scary is its jumpscare. Between our three movies, there are only three jumpscares.
DLACDI : What struck me in The Endless is the metafictionnal dimension of the film. For instance, you seem to play a lot with metafictionnal references as there are some similarities between the location or the characters from The Endless and Resolution, and it conjures up the viewer’s imagination. And, this is my theory, but if I can go further, this invisible Thing that we feel but never see, we may associate it with our own experience as a viewer, as the viewer is watching the characters, but can never be seen, but still receive some pictures of themselves from the sky. So my question is, is the relationship between yourself as filmmakers and the viewer is important for you ?
A.M :I think in Resolution the audience’s interaction with the picture you are watching yourself is very important, and the reveal at the end deals with it. And The Endless deals with the same sort of thing,. But this idea of voyeurship and voyeurism is definitely something we want to engage with. But the fact that neither had the budget nor the desire to make a movie where you see a gigantic monster or whatever it is, the great IT of the movie, relies on coming up with ideas that make you kind of invent something in there. So yes, the connection between the imagination of the audience members and what we are presenting is the most important thing in the wolrd. And it makes me wonder if audience members with a different kind of imagination or with less imagination might no enjoy the movie .A friend of ours told us that there are two types of viewers. The ones that don’t want to be told anything, and want to be challenged in a way and then there is a large amount of viewers that want to be given everything, and you don’t want to be in the middle, as your film may be mediocre. But you will never satisfy any of them. Maybe the one who can do it systematically is Christopher Nolan. He can tease your mind and then show you a bunch of stuffs.
DLACDI : Why do you have this obsession with old technological devices ? In the Endless, you use so many old recorders, videotapes, television or phone, is it a way to strenghtens the feeling of being « out of time » ?
J.B There are a few things you can use as a producer designer to a movie that makes people uneasy. There is something as simple as that. Old medias, like old photographs, old video tapes do have a creepy dimension. But the other thing is that when you show, and we used it in Resolution, a projection of an eight mm clip, by some definition of a ghost, it’s kinda the exact same thing. If you define a ghost as an image from elsewhere in time that is conscious of itself, like an empreint, it’s the exact same thing, as light going through a piece of film. So there is something eery about that idea. It’s not something said in the Endless or Resolution, but it is an interesting idea. And the other thing too is the meta ideas in the movie. We have this antagonist in both movies witnessing everything and transmitting thos things to characters. So the recordable medias makes the antagonist have something in common with the audience members, as they d have memories and photographs on their phones. If you have a movie with a lot of bunch of media and recordable devices, it connects with this human idea of memory.
A.M The Endless is about the repetition of time and our memories have so much to do with that, recordable medias is at the center piece of the film and it makes more sens for the thing we are talking about. So there is an emotionnal connection to the scary.
DLACDI : What would you say to a very young filmmaker, who does have a lot of ambition but not enough money ?
J.B It’s gonna sound cliché. I’m going to take me as an example. The thing that I would say to any young filmmaker, or just to any young person who do have ambition in general, is that I don’t have any specific talent, but I am willing to spend hours and hours to try and accomplish this thing. And I think, if young people know they have an ambition in something, you just work really hard. I am an example of that, and there is an optimism about it. If you want to write films , juste write ten hours a day. You’ll probably be good at it, you’ll probably succeed. We never had any great opportunity. We had just one great piece of luck to make our first movie, but that can happen to anyone to.
A.M : There is an idea, especially for young and starting at, when you are starting something in an intimidating field, that your first work have to be explosively good, or you’re not a genius.Btut the very called, easy truth is that pretty much nobody is a genius, and almost everybody think he is a genius, starting out not being a genius. So go get your first movie made, like however you wanna make it. Litteraly, just do it and try it, see what it looks like, see how bad it is, see how good it is. And don’t complain about the lack of budget, but complain about the fact that you haven’t worked on that for enough time. And then just, do it again and again. And eventually you will make something good, you will. And that’s just a fact. And so it’s weird when I see first time featured filmmakers who never have made a short film before, you’re out of your minds. And it’s probably not going to be good. Maybe a little bit good. But there are a lot of people who enjoy being in the director’s chair more than they enjoy actually making a movie. But they can of see the goal, what they need to reach this goal, rather than actually making the movie. And not everyone admit to be this kind of person. But the only way to know if you have this artistic thing, go and make anything. And then go and make anything again. And nothing is too small. We were speaking about sci-fi movies, actually the Endless did not require a lot of budget. And the only reason it looks like it has a larger budget than it does, for instant in its visual effects, it’s because, when I was in sixth grade, I started to learn visual effects. I’m going to give you a piece of advice, that makes sense when you are making more and more movies, and you’ve heard so much, that you say, « of course ! » But I didn’t know that I haven’t found my voice until I’ve found it. I thought I already had it, I thought I knew what I liked. I just liked stupid movies, and I didn’t even know that Iwas imitating them. But, the more movies you make, the more there is this marble statue that you call your voice and that you juste start shaving it and figure out what is it that makes you like movies and making them. And most people don’t even know they are imitating other people. You’ll never make it if oyou are making movies that everyone else can do.
J.B What you say about voice, it can be very confusing for very young filmmakers. It’s not something you get by doing it a lot. It can be confusing, because, when you’re a fan of things, like being a Tarantino fan, knowing his influences by heart, you can get to the conclusion that filmmaking is imitating. But that’s not necessarily true. You can not improve by getting a more fan of things. You can improve by doing those things.